28-year-old New Yorker and music theater buff David Keith was enjoying a whirlwind tour of shows in London in the summer of 2019 when the call came from a doctor in Alaska who had eyes on challenging an incumbent Republican for a U.S. Senate seat.
Keith was recommended to the Dr. Al Gross for Senate team largely because of his work managing the 2018 Wisconsin campaign of Randy Bryce, a Democrat with no political experience, running against Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Ultimately, Ryan quit the race and the story became the inspiration for the 2020 film ‘Irresistible’ starring Steve Carrell.
Piqued by the opportunity to once again send to Washington a candidate with no political experience and very little name recognition, Keith took the job. On July 3, 2019 he concluded his vacation by taking in a performance of ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’ and the next day he was on a flight to Frankfurt before slingshotting over the North Pole to land in Alaska and get to work as campaign manager for a little known former orthopedic surgeon from southeast Alaska with a masters degree in Public Health Policy.
As the votes continue to be counted over the next week, that longshot candidacy finds itself in a virtual dead heat with incumbent Senator Dan Sullivan. Tuesday night’s results have Gross down considerably, as was expected, but more than 120,000 absentee ballots still remain to be counted, and presumably a heavy share of those early will break Gross’ way.
Days before the election, I caught up with Keith to reflect on the race.
What are some notable races you’ve run in the past?
I’ve managed three — won two, lost one. I managed Eloise Reyes (for Congress) out in Los Angeles. We upset the Democrat in the primary and got through the general election and beat the incumbent in 2016. Then I ran a special election for Jimmy Gomez in L.A., and then I managed Randy Bryce against Paul Ryan and we knocked Ryan out early in a gerrymandered district, so I was very proud of that.
How did you take out Paul Ryan?
The whole concept was to take a regular person with a great story and strong message and launch the candidate. The theory of the race was that Paul Ryan was known as the ultimate DC insider so we thought he would probably have a glass jaw and was beatable. Paul Ryan realized he was beatable and quit. People who don’t like to lose and see that they’re beatable usually quit the game.
What lessons did you take from that that you’ve used on the Gross campaign?
My friend Bill Hyers taught me that you always want to look for the next tactic, instead of trying to copy tactics of the previous cycle and adapt them to the next cycle. Randy used Twitter to raise money in a way that was pretty novel and it launched him onto the scene quickly and effectively. With Al, no one gave us much hope for the vast majority of this race, but we brought Al onto the scene locally and nationally with some techniques online that have proven to be very effective.
Did you see similarities between Paul Ryan and Dan Sullivan? Did you think Dan had a glass jaw?
Looking at Alaska, it is just like the Paul Ryan race in that it’s an underdog race to say the least; the likelihood on paper is tough for both. I think I’ve shown to be somebody that’s willing to take risks and get behind the unlikely candidate because I believe the unlikely candidate — be it Randy Bryce or Al Gross — often has real gold in the form of political talent and political appeal.
How did you handle Al’s name recognition problem?
We had to figure a way to get his name out without spending a lot of money, due to the fact that we didn’t have it. You want to get to a point where once the race gains steam you’re not starting at zero. Too many races seek money only and then think that once they have the money you get the name recognition. I think you can do both simultaneously and I think Al proved that. That first summer we’d built his name ID to 20 to 25 percent.
Once you got the ads going with the ‘Born in the wake of an avalanche’ ad, the character you created in Al is almost a caricature, like a Paul Bunyan kind of mythology.
It’s not mythology because it’s true... I think we drew people in when they were watching TV and it was shit after shit after shit on top of darkness on darkness piled on more shit and then you get this one-minute ad with this guy with a cool story and a great vision. I think that says something.
I think Al is a larger-than-life character. Al has done remarkable things and has a remarkable story so you have to tell it in a remarkable way.
‘The killed a bear in self-defense’ story really drew attention, especially from Republicans who tried to disprove it, even though it seems to pretty much check out
The fact that the Republicans went after it fairly quickly showed just how scared Dan is of his own damn shadow. We all know orders to attack like that come from the top, from the candidate. Dan Sullivan, with all due respect, would’ve been back in the Cleveland suburbs quicker than you can imagine if he came across that grizzly bear. Al Gross is a true Alaskan story. Whether you call it a glass jaw or not, the Republicans saw a microcosm of all the problems a candidate like Al could pose for Dan. Al is a true Alaskan with a great Alaskan story vs., I’d argue, a fairly bland ultra-conservative, out-of-touch, potentially carpetbagger — add any adjectives or terms you want — but the fact that they jumped on the bear story so quickly, they saw Dan had a problem… so you’ve seen Dan and the Republicans try to dislodge that from Al.
That of course paved the way for the ‘Bear Doctor’ jingle that by now everyone has stuck in their heads, for better or worse
It was a full team effort, but I want to take credit for the term. I was in the pharmacy and walking around aisles, an older couple is talking and I hear the guy say, ‘you see that ad over and over on TV?’ And the woman says, ‘what the one with the doctor?’ ‘The what?’ ‘That fisherman, the bear doctor, it’s stuck in my head.’
We have a really good digital team and a bunch of talented musicians got together and that was the start of ‘Bear Doctor’.
The campaign got a huge boost from the Pebble Tapes with (Pebble Project CEO Tom) Collier saying Sullivan was secretly supportive of the mine. What was your reaction when those came out?
I wasn’t surprised. People are getting caught left and right now in this new COVID world, on Zoom, not knowing who’s recording or who’s on what. And I’m not surprised they’d think Dan is hiding in the corner; it’s almost like a central casting way to describe him. You don’t hear about him. You hear about Lisa and Don, to the extent you hear anything about the delegation, but you do not hear about Dan. That’s a problem for him because it subconsciously perfectly described what people think of him… Obviously Pebble is contentious, but it’s also the microcosm of the case against him.
Not only did the Pebble Tapes give you talking points, it practically doubled your warchest overnight. How did that change things? How much pressure did it add?
We had phonebanked and raised plenty into 7-figures, and TV’s not cheap. We were doing well but we were grinding it out… This is the kind of race where you have to do everything; you have to be willing to experiment and you have to take some risks. I’m happy we had the grassroots resources. Plenty of people were getting sick of hearing a volunteer or canvasser on the phone or knocking on their door. When voters say ‘get away, stop knocking on my door,’ that usually means you’re doing your job well. You want to work as hard as possible to go right up to that line, especially in a state where Democrats have such a difficult registration disadvantage.
What’s been the biggest surprise of the race?
It never ceases to amaze me how taken aback the other side is when a first-time candidate can find success. It irks their total methodology of what makes a good candidate. Dan Sullivan has been thinking about running for office from the time he played T-ball — if he ever played T-ball. He’s been groomed for this shit. Sometimes it’s the Democratic establishment, too, not just Republican — it just kills them. They like to see themselves as the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain; this big machine, and when an unvarnished, gruff fisherman doctor guy comes up it kills them because he’s everything their machine is not. The machine produces operatives and a process and when they’re beat — or almost beat — it kills them.
What’s your impression of Alaska as a place and its people?
Alaska is a perfect example of a misunderstood political state. There are more Republicans than Democrats; it is a red state, but there’s so many independents and what makes an independent here is not as definable as other places. I believe people here have their own way of thinking every square mile and that’s why local issues dominate the vote. I think that’s why you see so much ticket-splitting. The same electorate that elected Lisa Murkowski elected Mark Begich, Bill Walker and Dan Sullivan. The electorate is not predictable. It has and will continue to throw off the pundits.
Do you have any ambitions of running for office yourself one day?
Zero. I see what these candidates have to go through and it’s not something I’m interested in. I want to have a family and it’s a lot in the Internet age to know how your family’s privacy can be invaded. It’s not something I’m interested in.
What’s the dream campaign you’d like to manage?
I’d like to do an international race. I’m really interested in that. It would be interesting to see if you could take the same concept of taking someone who’s not a politician and help to make them into a real contender. It’s fascinating. Now, imagine that in countries plagued by totalitarianism or corruption. It’s refreshing to think that’s possible.
What similarities are there between music theater and running a political campaign?
You’ve gotta have an imagination. People who come to campaigns with no imagination and think all the stuff is spreadsheets and managing spreadsheets — for one, I don’t think that’s a fulfilling way to live life, and for two, that’s how you get caught up in the minutiae. Our campaign has been about Al telling the story and you’ve got to have some imagination to tell that story.
What’s going to become of social media and the way it impacts our elections?
Like I said, I think all elections are always about the next thing — not the last cycle. You have to think about how to use the next tool, that is always the key.
What is that next tool?
I do not know.
Lasers? Is it lasers?
I hope not. They kind of freak me out.